- Born: USA
- Based: Boston, MA, USA
One year after the catastrophic destruction of Super Typhoon Haiyan, the popular narrative in the news is one of national resiliency. Photos show residents building new neighborhoods in Tacloban named Haiyan that the super typhoon ravaged a year earlier, and stories about the preparations for the visit of Pope Francis in January 2015 are intertwined with recovery from the storm. There is little discussion of the more than six thousand dead or the $2.86 billion in damages. It’s incredibly difficult to find a story about the Philippine government’s own slow deployment of aid or relief in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon.
“Resiliency” is a word one would hope is associated with responding to a natural disaster. But in the case of the media’s coverage of Haiyan, the narrative of resiliency created limited and problematic coverage that created skewed perceptions of the impact of the storm for those on the ground and that allowed Western television journalists to aggrandize themselves before their viewing public.
The primary flaw in the Western media’s coverage of Haiyan was that it relied heavily on the accounts of English speakers. While this may seem a minor detail because the Philippine population is technically bilingual, English proficiency strongly is related to economic class. The English-speaking Filipinos whom Western journalists interviewed thus had higher education levels and salaries than the average citizens from Leyte and Samar, the islands that Haiyan destroyed in one of the poorest regions in the Philippines. One third of the region lives in poverty, the third-highest poverty rate in the country. In Eastern Samar, the area where Haiyan first touched ground, 59.4 percent of the population lives on a per capita earning of less than $224 per year. Leyte and Samar also have some of the lowest education levels in the country. According to the 2008 Philippine National Census, only the chronically underfunded areas of Muslim Mindanao in the Southern Philippines had lower education statistics. One also easily can argue that viewers of the Western news did not grasp the full impact of Haiyan in the images circulated of the typhoon’s destruction because most people in the area do not speak Tagalog, let alone English. Coincidentally, they were also the poor and marginalized in society and thus the most in danger.
What stories did Western journalists miss? One need only look at the nation’s most popular evening news program, TV Patrol and the ABS-CBN network. The Tagalog-speaking massa, or masses, had voiced their frustration over the Philippine government’s lack of preparedness before the typhoon even landed. Even when the typhoon was out at sea, ABS-CBN reporters interviewed residents in Leyte and Samar who were skeptical of the historically inaccurate predictions of PAGASA, the national weather agency in charge of predicting storm paths and weather. Cameramen showed government storm shelters that were hastily constructed of flimsy materials that would come apart during the typhoon, and badly built roads that crumbled under the weight of heavy vehicles. ABS-CBN correctly placed Haiyan within the context of the typhoons that pass regularly through the Philippines. There had already been one tropical depression, seven tropical storms, five severe tropical storms, and six typhoons in the calendar year by the time Haiyan hit in November 2013. Western television reports instead fixated just on Haiyan and failed to contextualize the typhoon within the larger story of storms in the Philippines.
How did Western television news miss out on these voices and stories? More to the point, why did they not have Tagalog-speaking correspondents? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the Southeast Asian bureaus of Western news media are located far away from the Philippines in Jakarta or Singapore. They rely on expatriate freelancers and news stringers for most of their coverage of the Philippines. Moreover, these reporters are based in the capital city of Manila – 356 miles northwest of Leyte-Samar and thus far away from the epicenter of Haiyan’s destruction. The lack of Filipino voices or direct interviews was obvious, especially compared to the Western media’s coverage of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan that featured interviews and translations with Japanese speakers from the beginning. One would expect Western news organizations to have hired English-speaking Filipino journalists or Tagalog-speaking global Filipino journalists. But neither were hired.
The second problem was that Western journalists inflated their roles as reporters in the typhoon’s aftermath. I will focus on two examples involving CNN journalists.
First, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III on November 12, 2013, and immediately was praised for holding the president responsible with her supposedly hard-hitting questions. She questioned Aquino about his administration’s significantly low casualty estimates compared to the western estimates, as well as the slow deployment of relief four days after the typhoon hit. But Amanpour also framed the last question of the interview in a decidedly American style. “Let me ask you about your responsibility as president,” she said. “Clearly, I don’t know if you agree, but the way you respond, your government responds, to this terrible devastation, will probably define your presidency. What do you say to that?” To be clear, Amanpour was right to ask President Aquino why his government response was so poor. His answers meandered pathetically as he blamed local law enforcement officials for abandoning their posts when the national police failed to support them, and he accused journalists of sensationalism in inflating casualty numbers. But Amanpour framed her questions without the context of Philippine politics. Not only did this question channel the American obsession with political legacies, it ignored the regularity of natural disasters in the Philippines and the fact that most Filipino politicians are remembered most for their stances on corruption and economics. Philippine Inquirer columnist John Nery wrote about Amanpour: “She was asking as an outsider. Even more to the point, she was asking it as an outsider with [George W.] Bush’s Katrina as context.” What is more, the correct question should have been, why wasn’t the national government properly prepared for Haiyan considering how many natural disasters occur in the Philippines? Indeed, Philippine journalists were asking the president and his administration this question in the immediate aftermath of Haiyan. But when Amanpour had the exclusive interview presidential interview with the largest viewership, she failed to ask the most important question about the effects of Haiyan.
Second, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was praised for his on the ground reporting from the city of Tacloban after the typhoon. Like Amanpour, Cooper began reporting on Haiyan five days after the typhoon on November 12. And like Amanpour, he caused a media sensation, this time stating that he did not see “real evidence of organized recovery or relief.” Newspapers, blogs, and media critics praised for him for his visceral style of reporting and his moral outrage over what he perceived as a lack of urgency in the government’s response. He even got into a tiff with ABS-CBN’s prime time news anchor, Korina Sanchez, the wife of Mar Roxas, one of the president’s men in charge of disaster relief. Sanchez was infuriated by Cooper’s critiques of the government and claimed on her morning radio show that Cooper was “mali-mali” (“wrong”) and that he “does not know what he is saying.” But most people backed Cooper. Filipinos even awarded him with a star on the Walk of Fame Philippines. Cooper cried for four days on camera as he interviewed doctors who lacked medical supplies and water, ordinary people who refused to leave the sides of their deceased relatives, and American Marines who grumbled about the Philippine government’s lack of coordination. Cooper repeatedly praised the Filipino people for their “strength and continued courage.” Like Amanpour, he was correct in his actions. But he also was contributing to the default response of national resiliency — the same narrative that Filipino politicians including President Aquino use to sweep the discussion of government preparedness under the rug. Who needs plans when the people themselves could respond even under the direst circumstances? Thus, it was not surprising when the people directly affected by the storm in Leyte and Samar accused the Philippine government of paying more attention to the Western journalists covering the typhoon than the Filipino survivors who were directly affected by it.
While resiliency makes a good story for anniversaries and aftermaths of natural disasters, it sometimes leads to incomplete portrayals of affected peoples and the uncritical analysis of government institutions. The destruction of Typhoon Haiayan in the Philippines was immense. The swift global response in aid and relief was impressive. Those two truths are quite extraordinary. And yet the Western media’s resiliency story of a nation bouncing back from Haiyan obscured two quite ordinary truths of Philippine life: The poor often do not have a voice in the discussion; and foreigners who think they are accurately presenting the Philippines sometimes fail to ask the most obvious questions.